Black Shuck, Revenant Roadkill?

On 4th August in the Suffolk villages of Bungay and Blythburgh a terrible thing happened. A horrific force of evil was unleashed… but did it end under the wheels of a classic car?

John Stow, the protestant historian who would later write his incredibly important Survey of London in 1603, wrote about the incident in his additions to Holinshead’s Chronicles:

“On Sundaie the fourth of August, Tempest in Suffolke between the houres of nine and ten of the clocke in the forenone, whilest the minister was reading the second lesson in the parish church of Bliborough, a towne in Suffolke, a strange and terrible tempest of lightening and thunder strake through the wall of the sale church into the ground almost a yard deepe, draue downe all the people on that side aoue twentie persons, then rernting the wall up to the vesutre, cleft the doore, and returning to the steeple, rent the timer, brake the chimes, and fled towards Bongie, a towne six miles off. The People that were stricken downe were found groueling more than halfe an houre after, whereof one man more than fortie yeares and a boie of fifteen yeares old were found starke dead: the others were scorched. The same or the like flash of lightening and cracks of thunder rent the parish church of Bongie, nine miles from Norwich, wroong in sunder the wiers and wheels of the clocks, slue two men which sat in the belfreie, when the other were at the procession or suffrages, and scorched an other which hardlie escaped.”

However, the local Rector, Abraham Fleming, had a darker tale to tell. Fleming was a schoolmaster and a scholar, in addition to being the Rector of the parish church of St. Pancras Bungay, wrote a tale of warning about man’s debauchery, atheism and fornication. In a pamphlet called A Strange and Terrible Wunder, published in 1577, he said the events of August 4th were…

A spectacle no doubt of Gods iudgement, which as the fire of our iniquities hath kindled…

He told a tale of the villagers gathering for morning mass while a storm of terrible force battered the village, of rain ‘with no less force than abundance’ lashing his parishioners with violent force. Thunder and lightning crashed over the village, ‘rare and vehement’, so that the people of Bungay were huddling frightened and confused in the church.

As they sat shivering with fear, listening to  Fleming’s sermon about sin and death, and the dangers of Sodomy (he’s very concerned about sodomy, he mentions it twice in the preface to the Strange and Terrible Wunder whereas every other sin only gets mentioned once) when thunder and lightning started crashing and flashing around the church itself.The air darkened suddenly, so that even with the candles lit the fearful locals could barely see each other when…

…fearful flashes of lightning, and terrible cracks of thunder, which came with such unwonted force and power… the Church did as it were quake and stagger, which struck inot the harts of those that were present, such a sore and sodain feare, that they were in a manner robbed of their right wits.

Immediately hereupon, there appeared in a most horrible similitude and likenesse to the congregation and then and there present, a dog as they might discerne it, of a black colour; as the sight whereof, togither with the fearful flashes of fire which then were seene, moved such admiration (fear) in the mindes of the assemblie, that they thought doomes day was already come…

Fleming writes that the dog run down the main isle of the church with unholy speed, running between two people who were praying on their knees, and wrung the necks of them both, jerking their heads backwards and (presumably) snapping their necks so that they immediately died.

The creature also touched another man on the back, making him whither and shrink ‘as it were a peece of lether scorched in a hot fire; or the mouth of a purse or bag, drawen togither with a string…’

The unfortunate man lived, as did the Clark of the church who was on a ladder, cleaning the gutters and fell down after mighty thunderclap hit him.

The black dog itself escaped from the church, leaving the stones ‘reten & torne, ye marks as it were of his clawes or talans. Beside, all the wires, the wheeles, and other things belionging to the Clock, were wrung in sunder, and broken in peces.’

Fleming also writes that Bungay wasn’t Shuck’s only stop that morning:

On the self same day, in like manner, into the parish church of another towne called Bilbery, not above seven miles distant from Bongay above said, the like thing enteres, in the same shape and similartude, where placing himself uppon a maine balke or beam, whereon some ye Rood did stand, sodainly he gave a swinge downe through ye church, and there also, as before, slew two men and a lad, & and burned the hand of another person that was there among the rest of the company, of whom divers were blasted.

This mischief thus wrought, he flew with wonderful force to no little feare of the assembly, out of the church in a hideous and hellish likeness…

The black dog quickly entered into the public consciousness: the storm was reported by Stowe in the Chronciles (and in his Annals of 1580s) but the black dog is mentioned in John Louthes’ Reminiscences of 1579.

And although Fleming warns us that the coming of the black dog was wrought by our own sin and debauchery, John Harries’ Ghost Hunter’s Road Book says that Bungay Castle was long said to have been haunted by the Revenant (a sort of physically powerful undead creature that could appear in the form of an animal) of the first Earl of Norfolk, High Bigod (sometimes known as Hugh the Bold and Hugh the Restless) who had held an abortive stand against the King in the 12th Century, and died excommunicated for his sins.

The idea of a man’s ghost coming back as an animal might be strange to us, but medieval writers show us similar things happening all the time. The Bylands manuscript, a jotted list of ghost stories by a 14th Century monk, tells us of a man who encountered a ghost trapped in the form of a black bull with no orifices on its head. Compared to that, a black hound with glowing eyes is pretty pedestrian.

My favorite Black Shuck story comes from Cambridgeshire. It was collected by the folklorist Enid Porter in 1961.

The story goes that a farmer  was having trouble with his hired hands, who were refusing to go out on the roads between Littleport and Brandon Creek when it was raining, saying that Black Shuck, the devil dog of East Anglia haunted the area. The landlord thought for a moment, asked for a description of the dog and then replied that he thought he’d hit it with his car.

When the baffled farm workers asked for an explanation he said that he’d been going a little too fast around a bend at Littleport when the huge black beast just appeared out of nowhere, and he didn’t have time to break before hitting it at speed. The poor creature didn’t have a chance, expiring on the road and then vanishing into thin air.

Whether the farmer had really encountered the beast or not, the story pleases me. It doesn’t seem as if the black dog of doom was seriously hurt: John Harries’ book has him being seen again as soon as 1917, and Norfolk Blogger David Hobart writes about being warned that he might see the dog on the cliffs near Cromer. David also writes that the Eastern Daily Press reported a member of the coastguard seeing a black dog on a beach in 1972, tracking it with his binoculars until it vanished in front of his eyes.

All the same, Black Shuck’s survival of his encounter with some landowner in a Wolseley Siddeley gives me an awesome image: Black Shuck, dog of the devil, having received some supernatural veterinary attention, wearing the cone of shame…

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